by Steven Camarota
The real crisis in the U.S. labor market is not, as we keep hearing, that there are not enough people who can work. The real crisis is all of the working-age people on the sidelines, not even looking for a job. Yes, the unemployment rate is low, but that statistic covers only people who have looked for a job in the last four weeks. The labor force participation rate, which measures the share of working-age people working or at least looking for work, shows a long-term decline, especially for men without a college degree. This is especially true in states like Connecticut. When able-bodied men are not even looking for work, a host of social problems ensue — from crime, to drug addiction, to family breakdown.
The possible reasons for the decline in labor-force participation are as varied as the suggested solutions, but the role of immigration, both legal and illegal, is difficult to deny. A comprehensive 2016 study from the National Academies found that increasing the supply of labor through immigration reduces the wages for some U.S.-born workers and this almost certainly reduces the incentive to work.
Perhaps more importantly, the crutch of immigration allows politicians, employers, and the public to ignore this dramatic decline in work and the social problems it causes. We have a clear recent example of this. Even though labor-force participation remains near historic lows in all of their states, at the end of April a bipartisan group of senators was in talks to legalize illegal immigrants and significantly increase guestworkers to satisfy employers.
Just how large is the decline in labor-force participation in Connecticut? Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, which excludes jails and prisons, research by myself and Karen Zeigler shows that the number of 16- to 64-year-olds not in the labor force increased 22 percent between the first quarter of 2000 and the first quarter of this year, even though the state’s population grew about 6 percent.
Among Connecticut men between the ages of 25 and 54, which is the “prime age” for work, only 82 percent of the U.S.-born without a bachelor’s degree were in the labor force in the first quarter of this year, down from 89 percent in 2019 before Covid, and 91 percent at the peak of the expansion in 2000. Back in 1979 it was 97 percent, though we cannot break out the U.S.-born separately in the older data.
Over this time period, the immigrant population grew dramatically in Connecticut. The foreign-born share of the state’s population more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1980 to 19 percent today. More 8 out of ten of the nearly 665,000 foreign-born residents now living in the Nutmeg State are legal immigrants. No one should “blame” immigrants for the labor force decline of the U.S.-born per se, or begrudge immigrants’ desire to achieve a better life in the U.S. But continuing to allow so many people into the country has consequences for the existing population, including competition with lower-skilled workers.
Of course, not every job taken by an immigrant is one lost by an American, but research shows that immigration impacts internal migration, indicating that competition does exist. An academic paper published last year shows that as immigrants moved into southern Florida, fewer U.S.-born workers arrived and more left. An analysis published this year finds this same phenomenon nationally. This confirms much older work from the 1990s.
Furthermore, the U.S.-born are a majority of workers in all but six of the 474 occupations defined by the Department of Commerce. There are no “jobs that Americans won’t do.” It is true that agricultural labor is majority immigrant, but it comprises less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. labor force and there is already an unlimited guestworker program for this relatively tiny sector of the workforce.
To be sure, immigration is certainly not the only cause of the decline in labor-force participation. Getting less-educated Americans back to work will involve reforming our welfare and disability systems and trade policies. Allowing wages to rise, partly by reducing immigration, would certainly make work more attractive. Combating the opioid crisis, improving job training, and re-instilling the value of work will all have to play a role. None of this will be quick or easy. But we are much less likely to even address the problem unless immigration is reduced. Bringing in immigrants to fill jobs means turning a blind eye to the destructive impact of idleness among the native-born.
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Steven Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.